Friday, May 31, 2013

Follow the money

     Taxes are somewhat like the weather: Everyone loves to complain about them. But unlike the weather, taxpayers can actually influence tax levels and how they’re used. They have only to follow the money and testify at public budget hearings.

     This used to be difficult. A citizen who wanted to learn how much government agencies collected in taxes and how they spent them had to contact City Hall or the County Courthouse or a School District office to get a printed copy of proposed or existing budgets. It required a lot of time just to make the arrangements, let alone go through a budget.

     That’s slowly beginning to change and local taxpayers should take advantage of the easy access to local budgets that are popping up on the Internet.

     For example, a 122-page draft budget for the Blaine County School District, which is responsible for educating an estimated 3,383 students each year, is available on the district’s website. The district is the largest taxing district in the county. Want to know how much it spends on administration, teachers, athletic programs and special programs? It’s in there.

     The city of Ketchum recently posted an outline of its revenues and expenditures over the last year to kick start its budget discussions. It’s replete with charts and graphs that explain where the money comes from and where it goes. The outline also set out funding questions that the City Council will decide in the next budget.

     The trend toward posting public budgets online before they’re approved is an opportunity for citizens to learn and to influence, more than ever before, just how their government agencies operate.

     Then, the challenge will be for citizens to muster the energy and the nerve to attend local public hearings and speak up.

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